Furnishing A Future
Furniture companies and operators are working together to create a look and function that's not only stylish, but also designed with Millennials' study habits and environmental beliefs in mind.
The expression "part of the furniture" takes on a whole new meaning when it's being used to describe student housing. Tables, chairs, beds and sofas couldn't be more front-and-center in a Millennial's decision to lease or not lease a furnished apartment. As the design and architecture of student communities becomes more urban or resort-inspired, furnishings are following suit. In many cases, the look of the unit does more than seal a deal on a lease, it's a way for a company to set itself apart from its competitors.
"Our clients see the interiors and furniture as an extension of their company's overall brand in the industry," says Paul Dougan, president of University Furnishings. "There are some companies who not only want the furniture to be stylish and edgy, but also to reflect who they are as a company. In many cases, we have builders who have a student housing company already identified to buy their product and will purchase unit furniture with the same specifications that this company likes."
Furnishings are a large factor in a property's success, and while being contemporary and sophisticated with furniture, fixtures and equipment is an important way to brand, many of the industry's top companies look beyond that, focusing on how each environment can make a student as academically successful as possible.
"There have been some recent studies and articles connecting art work to the enhancement of a student's ability to focus," says Jennifer Beese, senior vice president of leasing administration for American Campus Communities. "As universities have integrated more visual arts on the physical campus and in the classrooms, we are expanding that effort into student housing."
Beese says local artists' work will be part of ACC's The Village at Overton Park in Lubbock, Texas, and The Callaway House in Austin as a way to connect residents to the community and the region. Furniture in the units is modeled with the same spirit of making students comfortable, connected and ready to study. Beese says modular furniture that is stackable with options that enable it to be easily rearranged, like sectional pieces in place of sofas and lounge chairs enable students to customize their environment.
"A cool technique we are using to maximize floor space and increase flexibility is to incorporate dressers that break down and can be placed under the bed," she says. "Residents are also placing the corner sectional piece in a nook to create individual study areas. Anything that enables the student the flexibility to reposition the furniture to meet their needs."
As one example, Ecologic Furniture has addressed this trend by designing all lounge items as modular pieces. This also saves operators money by only having to replace the components that show wear and tear, without having to replace the entire piece. While furniture says a lot about a company, it also has a lot to say about today's students, and their parents, who are not always on the same page when apartment-hunting.
"One surprising trend we learned through a furniture design scholarship we initiated was that a lot of students don't study at the desks provided in their rooms," says Brian Hunt, founder and president of FOB. "Students are studying on their beds, the couch or on the floor, but we believe most student living providers still want to provide a desk if for no other reason than to appease the parents of the student."
Whether students use them a lot or not, desks are improving on the old designs.
"Desk chair styles are changing," says Rob Johnson, director of higher education sales for CORT. "The market seems to be moving away from the standard 'dorm' chair and providing more of an office chair style with ergonomic design."
Resort style amenities are being used more and more in building design and style, and furnishings are an important part of marketing and sustaining that concept.
"Student housing companies appear to be aligning themselves with the hospitality industry, specifically large-scale resorts both from a product and service level," Johnson says.
Case in point is Landmark's Retreat at Tucson, where Jill Lung, interior designer on the project, called the development's luxury spa component a "first" for student housing. Unit furnishings must continue this image for consistency, and student housing operators are opting for more sophisticated styles, generally with the idea that if a community is furnished with 'nice things,' students will be inspired to do the right thing and not damage them.
"Recently requested items include sectionals and media consoles that can house gaming systems and cable boxes," Johnson says. "Additionally, glass-top tables are requested more and more. Years ago, that would have been immediately dismissed in a student housing environment. I think the focus in the off-campus market is to give the students what you yourself would want. The thought process is that if you treat them as adults, they will behave as adults."
Dougan concurs that the resort theme is one of the primary goals in furnishings among many student communities right now. "Some of our clients send magazine clippings, retail furniture catalogs, and some who have stayed at the latest hotel in Los Angeles or San Francisco and loved the living spaces want to partially replicate that look."
Hunt adds that some of his clients will also send photos from their travels, including design inspirations from restaurant patios or interesting furniture they see on Pinterest. And a simple-lined, resort-inspired style is part of Blue Furniture Solutions' new "Discovery" line.
Other design details that speak to this overall trend include unique ways that technology can and will be incorporated into furnishings. Just as you're able to charge up and plug in multiple devices by your bed in a hotel, so too will student environments offer similar capabilities.
"We are working on an exciting new concept that will change how the student interacts with furniture," Hunt says. "Furniture isn't just about color and finishes. In the student world, it must be extremely functional. We are focusing on the functionality of furniture to provide our customers a competitive advantage."
Hunt says FOB is working on adding an electric charging plug station option into most of their furniture. The concept is to make charging cell phones, tablets and laptops convenient and simple whether a student is sitting on the couch or sleeping.
"The couch is usually covering up the wall outlets," Hunt says. "To have the ability to plug into an outlet located on the arm of a couch or on the nightstand, where the cell phone is often used as the alarm clock or the music source, would be very convenient."
In communities that are following the mixed-use, urban-style walk-to-campus development trend, furnishings are being selected that support that lifestyle.
"We are seeing a trend back to urban living nationwide, and the industry is reflecting that," Johnson says. "Smaller-scale pieces that can fit into modern, urban properties are in high demand." Johnson says this includes products that can fit in smaller, more urban settings, such as nesting tables, chairs that have ottomans that can slide under them and bar stools that can sit at the bar and the dining table."
While design and architecture is moving to urban sophistication, there are some styles that are returning to older looks.
"'History doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme,' Mark Twain said. The same rings true with furniture and style in general," says Dickson Furniture President and CEO Doug Mueller. "Two years ago, everyone wanted colors as dark as they would go. Espresso, espresso and more espresso. Now we are seeing some of the lighter colors from the late '90s coming back."
Beese says she is seeing a return to "1960s-1970s" modern with molded plastic chairs, aluminum mesh with chrome mixes and the womb chair, all of which will be featured at ACC's Callaway Austin and its community at Drexel University, both opening later this year.
Mattresses and other soft goods tend to remain the greatest challenges in keeping furniture fresh. According to every furniture company SHB contacted, bedding is the item replaced more often than any other piece of furniture. "Students will tolerate a lot of things, but neither parents nor students will accept old, saggy or stained bedding," Johnson says, adding that Nylon covers have become helpful components of today's student housing bed as they help repel stains and tend to last a few more seasons than cloth covers.
Mattresses are critical to the furniture package. As Mueller succinctly puts it: "If you want to lease up your property, put in a memory foam mattress." Memory foam and pillow top beds are becoming sought-after items, as products are being developed to address this common problem of mattress wear.
While today's student furniture is evolving to incorporate relevant functionality, tomorrow's furnishings will likely capture even more of the spirit of Millennials' changing viewpoints, particularly as they relate to the environment. Vendors are saying that solid woods, green upholstery and any item that can help tell the "green story," as Johnson phrases it, of a community will be in high demand.
"Upcycling is a new trend and unique process that includes the revitalization of material waste into new products," Beese says. "We are using this process at Princeton University, Lakeside Graduate Community, where we will be repurposing large oak trees from the land clearing into the property décor through custom furniture and milling it for custom interior finish materials. Several of our clubhouses feature reclaimed tables made from tree trunks. Utilizing reclaimed wood in our furniture is a win-win, as you typically do not have to worry about distressing the finish and it is a sustainable piece."
Ecologic Furniture specializes in sustainable furnishings by providing PVC-free fabrics, recycled leathers, plastics and steels. Additionally, the firm has improved on the traditional metal frame with laminate style furniture using a proprietary design of EcoSteel and EcoPlus materials. These materials are made form a recycled steel frame with recycled milk containers. "When our clients combine this product with our recycled leather, all made in the United States, it is by far the most environmentally friendly furniture solution in student housing," says Daniel Goldman, chief executive officer of Ecologic Furniture. "Students see this commitment to sustainability, and they feel good about where they are living. They then spread that message through social media, and future leasing efforts are augmented by this commitment the developer makes on behalf of their students."
— Lynn Peisner